Wagner makes Schalke believe again after springing a surprise at Leipzig | Andy Brassell

The Guardian Sports 2 months ago

Der FC Schalke wird Deutscher Meister,” came the chant from the away section at Red Bull Arena – Schalke are going to be champions of Germany – a refrain that one can only imagined would have been delivered with ladles of sarcasm at the back end of a thrashing through most of last season. The mood of fatalism, lingering from the last campaign, was still detectable in the first few weeks of this new one, with memories fresh and the football not yet inspiring under the new stewardship of a familiar face, David Wagner.

So, even if the faithful are not entirely serious, the delirium of Saturday afternoon in Leipzig was perfectly understandable as a dynamic away team led by a renewed Amine Harit – a player who is their new start in microcosm – cut through one of the early title favourites. When Harit strode clear and played in the Welsh teenager Rabbi Matondo to apply an emphatic finish on his first Bundesliga start of the season, signing and sealing the game at 3-0, it was difficult to fully absorb.

“The word ‘proud’ was invented for days like today,” beamed Wagner after the game, a fourth straight Bundesliga win that catapulted his team into the top four, even above their lightly faltering rivals Borussia Dortmund. The previous three victories had been needed, and they were welcome. This was different. It really was one to be savoured.

It had been a difficult scenario to envisage, even when the game got underway. Leipzig had their chances, with the in-form Marcel Sabitzer rattling the crossbar from his long-range sweet spot and visiting goalkeeper Alexander Nübel making a couple of important stops. “Alex kept us in the game by keeping out the first two big opportunities for Leipzig,” noted Wagner after the game.

By the time Nübel made his first slip, seemingly in two minds whether to catch or just parry Emil Forsberg’s long-ranger - eventually doing neither as the shot flew in – the clock was running down and the visitors were already three goals to the good, and it didn’t matter nearly as much as it might have.

Rabbi Matondo scored for Schalke after being deployed as a striker instead of a winger. Photograph: Pixathlon/Shutterstock

“I decided too early that I wanted to fist the ball out,” said Nübel. “That was my mistake.” Wagner and sporting director Jochen Schneider’s praise may have made him feel better, as did the travelling fans, he pointed out, chanting for him after Forsberg’s goal. The goalkeeper’s importance is clear, but neither would it be out of place to detect a touch of charm offensive from the club, knowing that his contract is running down – and out at the end of the season. Nübel, who celebrates his 23rd birthday today, has already rejected an approach from Leipzig, and is believed to have made known through his representatives that he isn’t keen on revisiting the possibility in future.

That leaves one other main exit possibility. Bayern. Yet their closing of ranks around Manuel Neuer last week, led by Uli Hoeness, was a reminder of the Germany number one’s status there. The faith that Schalke have placed in Nübel, who replaced Ralf Fährmann as captain and ‘keeper before the latter was packed off on loan to Norwich, is total.

What Schalke can best do to avoid another future icon following the well-trodden path out the door following the exits of Leon Goreztka, Max Meyer, Joel Matip for free is to establish a winning culture. Nübel is key to that but so is Harit. A side that struggled to find a way to score or even create in the first few games of the season has their playmaker to thank for joining the dots in the final third.

It has been a tough last year for Harit. Involved in a fatal car accident in Morocco during the summer of 2018 after his return from the World Cup, he visibly (and by his own admission) struggled to get past it, and he delivered an underwhelming 18-19 after a promising debut campaign. Wagner appears to have helped him move on and get back towards fulfilling his considerable potential. He won and scored the penalty that made it 2-0 in the first half in Leipzig before creating Matondo’s clincher.

“This is a very, very good Bundesliga player,” Nagelsmann had warned before the game. “David has put him back on track.” The Leipzig coach also said he had a special plan in mind to deal with Harit – a huge compliment in itself – but whatever it was, his team struggled to action it here as they gave up their unbeaten start.

Wagner giving Harit a role in the centre of the field has weighed in his success, just as his surprise deployment of Matondo, the former Manchester City winger, as a striker alongside Guido Burgstaller, did. Optimism abounds. “I’m not afraid to say that we’re a top team if we can continue to bring performances of this level,” Harit boldly stated. That, as always, remains the challenge for Schalke.

Talking points

It was a tale of two afternoon naps for Bayern and Dortmund – one proving costly, but the other going unpunished. The champions escaped minnows Paderborn with a 3-2 win, despite lackadaisical play that included Robert Lewandowski missing an open goal and Thiago Alcântara coming with a whisker of scoring an own goal when back-passing blind from the centre circle. BVB, meanwhile, recovered from conceding an early goal at home to Werder Bremen to lead, only to let their superiority drift – as last week in Frankfurt – and let in a cheap set-piece equaliser to concede another 2-2 draw. “We won’t get that many chances in London,” Manuel Neuer reflected on Bayern’s profligacy, Meanwhile Lucien Favre – who might be under pressure for the first time – lamented that “we didn’t control the game. We sometimes played a bit too hastily.”

Freiburg sit pretty in third after coming from behind to win at Fortuna Düsseldorf, while Gian-Luca Waldschmidt coming off the bench to score a typically stylish winner. With attacking options in abundance at present, Christian Streich’s side will provide a real challenge for Dortmund next weekend.

After breaking his Bundesliga duck and engineering last week’s win against Fortuna, Marcus Thuram was at it again this Saturday, putting the opener on a plate for Alessane Pléa and scoring the second himself in Borussia Mönchengladbach’s 3-0 win at Hoffenheim. Winless in four and looking blunt without star attacking turn Andrej Kramarić, Nagelsmann’s successor Alfred Schreuder is already under the microscope.

The kings are dead, long live the kings. Eintracht Frankfurt looks very different after being shorn of their fantastic front three from last term but their new strike duo of Bas Dost and André Silva were both on the mark in a more-comfortable-than-it-looks-on-paper 2-1 win at Union Berlin – their first away points of the season.

The late game on Sunday turned into a bleak end to the weekend for Köln, still with a home point after losing to Hertha, who barely looked capable of crossing the halfway line until Javairô Dilrosun scored a cracker for a second straight week. Ante Čović’s side eventually ran out 4-0 winners, with substitute Vedad Ibišević scoring two. “We know we’re in a struggle to stay up,” admitted Köln sporting director Armin Veh.

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